How to 'Fail Up' in the Workplace

Failure that leads to success is part of the process of succeeding.

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Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Thomas Edison enshrined his failure along the way to inventing the light bulb by saying, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Failure that leads to success is actually a part of the process of succeeding. Your ability to “fail up” in this manner depends on your abilities and personality, the culture of your organization, the trust you’ve earned and the pressures at the moment you fail. Given all those factors being manageable, here are types of failure that lead to success, and others that are part of a downward spiral.

1. Simple mistakes. This is what Jordan and Edison referenced. With good intention and the motivation to contribute, you often have to engage in trial and error to learn the right technique or approach. Perhaps you are a new user of a software program, you don’t know the company’s procedures for getting approvals or you send a document to the wrong person. Just learn from these mistakes, and don’t make the same mistake twice. 

2. Complex failures, including errors in judgment. Making a bad decision about spending time, money or other company resources can be a combination of not knowing exactly what to do plus failing to use common sense or basic business acumen. When you put a rush on a printing order or opt for overnight delivery, there’s an increase in expenses. Those may be costs that your company eats, cutting into profits. A mentor may help you see the bigger picture, and give you access to experienced judgment you don’t yet have.

3. Social failure. Lacking emotional intelligence can cause a cascade of failure and permanently injure your reputation, and perhaps your company’s relationships. Without these social skills, you may be unable to see more than your own perspective, listen politely and respond appropriately to people with different opinions. People prefer to do business with people they trust and like, so without this sensitivity you are doomed to fail over and over.

4. Compounded failure, including attitude and personality problems. Being a difficult person whose polarizing attitude, compulsions or even personal hygiene is a continual problem is a type of failure most organizations cannot abide for long. Sometimes your personal challenges need outside assistance, including therapy or coaching. Let your management know if you are working out these kinks, so they know you are aware of the problem and are seeking a solution.

Failure like success is a part of business and life. Qualities like resilience, persistence, optimism and self-motivation are often what define great performers in any field.